Sixty years after the Supreme Court ordered schools desegregated, Education Secretary Arne Duncan used the rhetoric of a school choice proponent to describe administration policies while also explaining that continuing segregation in New York stems from the fact that white people and black people live in different neighborhoods.
"We firmly believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation," Duncan said Friday on Morning Joe. "We have to get better results. Things have gotten better; high school graduation rates are, as a nation, are at all-time highs. That's being driven by increases among black and Latino students. That's fantastic, but we have so far to go, and we have to continue to work with a tremendous sense of urgency to level the playing field for all of our nation's children."
Duncan's civil rights line echoes former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, when she said, "we need to give parents greater choice -- particularly poor parents whose kids -- most often minorities are trapped in failing neighborhood schools. This is the civil rights struggle of our day."
It's not a new idea for Duncan, but Democrats in the 2012 campaign reserved the civil rights language for LGBT issues, such as when Vice President Joe Biden "said transgender discrimination is 'the civil rights issue of our time,' " as the Huffington Post noted.
When MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asked whether parents in New York state should be given "the choice to let their children go to whatever schools they want them to go to," Duncan demurred while managing to use the language of school choice.
"We have to make sure every single public school in this nation is a school of choice," he replied. "So, traditional schools that are doing a great job, we need to replicate them and learn from them. Charter schools that are doing a great job, we need to replicate them and learn from them. We just need to make every single public school in this nation a school that parents will feel great about sending their children to."
Duncan backed a school choice program in Illinois before joining the Obama team, but he helped kill a D.C. school choice program in his first years on the job when President Obama caved to teachers' unions.
"Duncan withdrew the scholarships of 216 students who had been admitted to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program," the Heritage Foundation noted in 2010. "Those students are attending lower-performing schools as a result."
Duncan also discussed why New York schools are the most segregated in the country. "School integration, or lack of integration, reflects housing patterns, and when we choose to live apart from each other, schools reflect that," he explained.
Of course, if parents didn't have to send their kids to whichever school happened to be in their neighborhood, school integration wouldn't be driven by housing patterns.